I've stumbled upon Ray Bradbury's odd way of using prepositions in his book "Death is a lonely business".

Cal, of course, had done that awful job. So I had several reasons to go visit. Cal, the worst barber in Venice, maybe the world, but cheap, called across the tidal waves of fog, waiting with his dull scissors, brandishing his Bumblebee Electric clippers that shocked and stunned poor writers and innocent customers who wandered in.
Cal, I thought. Snip away the darkness.
Short in front. So I can see.
Short on the sides. So I can hear.
Short in back. So I can feel things creeping up on me.

The way he asks the barber to cut his hair "short in front" and "short in back" maybe me really wonder if it is correct.

I'm used to "short at the front" and "short at the back".

Can someone explain this to me?

  • 1
    I think it's more common to omit the article before "locative" prepositions of place like back, front in AmE. For example, I think Americans are more likely to say Come out back where Brits would say Come out the back (meaning Come through the house to the back yard/garden with me). Your cited example sounds very slightly "folksy" to me - but it's not particularly unusual, especially in relaxed spoken contexts. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:31
  • 1
    @SovereignSun: I'm not sure how to address the implications of you as a non-native speaker telling me that you think the usage I've put forward is "bad English". It's informal, primarily AmE, and maybe a little bit "folksy", as I said. But it's far more common than this Google Books search might imply (where I chose to append she to the search string to exclude "accidental collocation" matches). But note that the article is very unlikely to be omitted in contexts like your example, where back is further qualified. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 17:53
  • 1
    (Actually, Come out back with (me/us/etc.) better reflects prevalence.) Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 17:56
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers - I would have considered that to be bad English. That sounds to me like the O.P. is learning something from you, not accusing you of using bad English. I'm sure a lot of things we native speakers say would sound like bad English to the learner the first time around.
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 21:22
  • 1
    @J.R., SovereignSun: It's a tricky area, given that people have different definitions of "bad English". For example, I'd've agreed wholeheartedly if this sentence had written that example as I would of agreed wholeheartedly. Even though it's quite obvious that's what many native speakers think they're saying, and sometimes it's you can clearly hear the vowel as ɒv rather than just a schwa əv. By which I mean that just because a usage might be relatively widespread doesn't necessarily imply it can't be bad English. Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 13:05

1 Answer 1


Personally, I would use in, not at, when talking about the front and back of my hair. And, just as Bradbury did, I would use on for the sides.

I don't know how else this can be explained, except to assure you that it's indeed acceptable idiomatic speech and to remind you that most prepositions are not confined to a single meaning but have multiple meanings and usages. It's also not uncommon for more than one preposition to be acceptable in a given context (e.g., "He lives up/down the street from the store.")

In this particular case, either in or at is acceptable. Consider the way these two dictionaries define mullet (emphasis added):

mullet (n.) a hairstyle in which the hair is short on the sides and top and long at the back
(source: Merriam-Webster)

mullet (n.) A hairstyle formed by cutting the hair short on the top and sides of the head and allowing it to grow longer in back.
(source: American Heritage)

  • It might be the same sort of thing as "she was in the front/back of the room". But then we say "at the front of the line" - choosing "in", "on", or "at" can be difficult :(
    – ColleenV
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 15:51
  • You should consider taking a career in barbering @J.R. Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 16:57
  • Why is there no article then? Why not in the front and in the back? Where can I read about this? Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 17:37
  • @SovereignSun - Because the articles would be optional in this case. The sentence is neither wrong with them nor without them.
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 21:23
  • 1
    @SovereignSun - What is there to be confused about? Sometimes you can use more than one preposition to mean the same thing. You can tell your hairstylist that you want your hair cut or colored in the back or at the back, and your stylist will understand either one just fine.
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 15:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .